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Things to do in winter

Posted 9:21 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022

UW-La Crosse students and employees of UWL’s Outdoor Connection pose at an ice cave in the Kickapoo Valley Reserve near La Farge, Wisconsin, during a February hike. From left, Dylan Chapes, Mandie Schwarz, Marianna Malin, Alexis Tate and Thana Zoske. The Outdoor Connection on campus rents equipment for outdoor adventures throughout the year.

January, February, March, oh my! Don’t worry about what to do — we have you covered

While the middle of winter may seem like a time to hunker down beneath the warmth of your comforter and a flickering TV screen, many recreation opportunities await — just outside your door. Winter is a chance to embrace Wisconsin’s changing seasons and build a connection to your region, say two of UW-La Crosse’s outdoor recreation experts. 

Nathan Barnhart, associate director of programs for UWL’s Recreational Eagle Center, and Laurie Harmon, professor of Recreation Management and Therapeutic Recreation (with help from RMTR faculty and staff), provided a list of things to do in winter. 

While the outdoors may feel too cold for you in winter, even below zero temps can feel comfortable if you know how to dress for the weather. Invest in high-tech winter gear or save money by browsing Goodwill’s winter clothes racks. Barnhart and Harmon recommend layering your clothes, wearing non-cotton materials, and adding some wool to the mix. If you need equipment like snowshoes or cross-country skis, consider rentals. UWL rents gear to campus and community members through the Outdoor Connection

Nine things to do in winter in Wisconsin

UWL students sled on airboards in winter 2016.

1. Take an awe walk. Walk in nature, but set an intention at the start of the walk to turn your attention outward toward your natural surroundings. The goal is to make a connection with the outdoor space where you are walking instead of focusing inward. You can take an awe walk with others — just stay mindful of what’s around you. You may notice things you never have before like sounds of the wind in the trees, sights of ice reflecting light in a beautiful way, or the smell of damp leaves as the snow melts. When using trails, be sure to read signage at the trail start that may indicate the type of users allowed on the trail, closures and more. See this post on trail ettiquette.

2. Go sledding or snowtubing. All you need is a big hill and something to slide on! Try a regular sled, inner tube, an inflatable sled called an airboard, or a toboggan that holds 7-8 people. Sledding hills range from free public spaces to resorts that charge and provide all you need. Whitetail Ridge Ski Area at Fort McCoy has seven runs for snowtubing, providing your own alleyway as you coast down the hill and a “magic carpet” if you’re too tired to walk back up. Forest Hills Golf Course, just east of the UWL campus, is a great place for sledding for free with a mix of steep and gentle slopes. UWL’s Outdoor Connection offers sled rentals ranging from $2-5 for a day for a UWL student/staff. 

3. Explore ice caves and formations. Add some purpose to your hike by looking for an ice cave. Ice caves are naturally created in various locations around Wisconsin and other states. Near La Crosse, The Kickapoo Valley Reserve and Wildcat Mountain State Park are home to ice caves, created when groundwater trickles over sandstone overhangs, forming a frozen waterfall. The Kickapoo Valley Reserve is about an hour drive from La Crosse, near La Farge, Wisconsin. You can take one of several trails to see different ice caves, ranging from easy to difficult. Ice caves and formations can typically be admired until mid-March. The Kickapoo Valley Reserve and UWL’s Outdoor Connection offer guided ice hikes. 

4. Enjoy cross-country skiing. Ask around to find a groomed trail for cross country skiing. Hixon Forest, Forest Hills Golf Course, Perrot State Park, The Kickapoo Valley Reserve, Coulee Experimental Forest and Nordic Ski Trails at St. Mary’s University are just a few locations in or near La Crosse that traditionally have groomed paths for cross-country skiing. Check trail status with locations prior to going. Ski rental is available at the UWL Outdoor Connection. If you want an added challenge and have access to dogs, skijoring is like cross-country skiing but with dogs. Remember to watch signs related to animals on trails. (Dogs are not allowed on the ski trail on the golf course.)

5. Elevate your hike with snowshoes or crampons. A snowshoe is attached to your boot to provide a wider footprint for walking above the snow and across uneven terrain. Snowshoes help with stability and some have a hinge at the bottom to elevate your heel, making steep hills easier to manage. Another way to manage steep or icy terrain is attaching crampons to your boot— these are basically spikes that are attached to the bottom. The Outdoor Connection rents both. It is not hard to find public spaces for hiking and snowshoeing — look for marked hiking trails at parks. Just remember not to walk on cross-country ski tracks, which makes them harder to maneuver for skiers.  

6. Catch some fish. You can't be called a true Wisconsinite without having tried ice fishing. Ice fishing can be as simple as sitting on a five-gallon bucket with a pole. Others prefer fishing from the comfort of an ice shanty. Plenty of fishing spots are scattered throughout the area. Visit the DNR website for ice fishing safety tips, licensing and more. Some even try fly fishing in winter; however, the right gear and understanding of regulations of individual streams are needed.  An Ice Fishing Extravaganza will be from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 21, 2024, with location to be determined. Check for updates on Instagram. Since this is the Department of Natural Resources' free ice fishing weekend, no permits are required. The event is coordinated by UWL's Department of Recreation Management & Recreational Therapy.

7. Climb on ice. Imagine yourself climbing a giant ice wall with ice picks and crampons. If you know how to ice climb or want to learn with a guide, check out The Winona Ice Park, a manmade ice climbing park. The park does not rent equipment, but the Winona State University Outdoor Education and Recreation Center does.  

8. Try a fat tire bike. If you thought biking wasn’t a winter activity, think again. A fat tire bike has larger tires allowing you to maneuver off-road through snow, slush or mud. The Outdoor Connection rents fat tire bikes. Fat tire biking is allowed on city park trails, but you need to stay on the trails where biking is marked as allowed. The majority of winter bike accessible trails are in the Upper Hixon Forest. Outdoor Recreation Alliance (ORA) also has a list of winter fat biking trails. Watch the weather before fat tire biking. Biking in too warm of weather may destroy the trail for other users. See this resource on when to use winter trails.

9. Go ice skating. Ice skating is the classic winter recreation activity for all ages. The La Crosse area has multiple locations for ice skating, depending on the weather conditions.